Phantoms of Your Desires

Germany and France pretty much hated each other following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The French had had their proverbial asses handed to them. Humiliated in their defeat, the cultural response from the French was a conscious rejection of anything even vaguely Germanic. And nowhere was this more evident than in the music of French composers.

(Just to give you a shorthand to differentiate between these two fabulously divergent European cultures, here are two quick illustrations: think for a moment about the defined edges of the German language, with its distinct consonants at the ends of words, and then think of French, which is so softly luxurious and supple.


Think also of a wonderfully spiced bratwurst and earthy sauerkraut served with a stein of beer, compared with a light and flaky croissant accompanied by a little café au lait. And not to be too pop-psych about it, but the German bratwurst is reminiscent of a certain masculine appendage...compensating?)  

Quietly and unassumingly, in 1894, Claude Debussy ushered in the 20th Century with his Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It was all mood and no substance. Gone was the rigor of German symphonic form; no longer would this art be rooted in structure. From now on, it will luxuriate in pure voluptuous sound; everything is now about the moment-by-moment savoring of instrumental color and harmony. This would now be music of sheer sensuousness.

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862 - 1918)

The Poem

The Afternoon of a Faun was a poem written by one of Debussy’s friends, the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. The Symbolists used metaphor and imagery to suggest mood and atmosphere; the actual sound of a word became more important than its meaning. These writers stood opposed to ‘plain meanings…and matter-of-fact descriptions’, their aim was to ‘evoke not describe.’ An example from Mallarmé’s Afternoon of a Faun is: ‘No water murmurs but what my flute pours / On the chord sprinkled thicket.’ It is so lyrical but doesn't mean much of anything, other than to very effectively lull us into an altered mood-state (remind anyone of Berlioz' drug trip?)

The poem itself is incredibly erotic and sensual. A faun, the mythical half-man-half-goat, lazily awakens in the stifling heat of midday. He is unsure if his recollection of carnal relations with a couple of forest and water nymphs really happened or was just a daydream. The imagery is heavily metaphorical, subsuming the lush sexuality beneath the surface, though it remains readily understood. (It is also linguistically very beautiful – you should check it out here.)

The Music

Debussy does not tell the story of the poem. He is painting a picture of its general feeling and ambiance. You may even notice how the eroticism of the poem and the music permeates the description that follows. 

Like the Forest God, Pan, our faun plays reed pipes. To conjure this, Debussy begins the piece with a single flute playing a languid and seductive tune. The melody just gently undulates in the air; it seems filled with a delicious lethargy. The thick midday air flutters with a shimmering harp, and then – silence…

The harp lazily yawns again; the music hardly has the energy to move at all.

The flute’s nebulous melody returns, this time accompanied by the fuzzy haze of strings. The music begins to surge; three wave-like swells from the whole orchestra spill forward, and then simply disintegrate into a lone clarinet.

The flute’s melody returns (as you can see, this is how Debussy builds the whole piece) but this time it wanders off through the forest in another direction, like a recurring image in a dream with a shifting landscape behind it. We catch wisps and fragments here and there as we wend our winding way… but there is nothing concrete or tangible.

Before we arrive at the central climax (double-entendre intended) there is a most arresting scene: a big tune is finally given to the strings – who until now have only provided color and texture – and so they happily lavish their rich burnished luster upon its beauty. But they are accompanied by woodwinds who seem to be breathlessly chasing after something. It is something they cannot grasp, yet they yearn and pine and reach, all while the strings sing out ecstatically. This is the embodiment of Debussy’s art. This moment somehow conveys something completely elusive. It is reminiscent of trying in vain to remember an image from a dream that can’t be recalled. Or perhaps it is the idea of having something (the string melody) and not being satisfied with it (the woodwind syncopation); or maybe, it is not having something and yearning endlessly for it. Better yet, it is just that ambivalent feeling you have when you hear this music. 

From the dizzying euphoria of this pinnacle we wearily crumple. In our satisfied stupor, familiar strains drift serenely over us... Once again, we hear the faun’s melody ripple softly through the air. Slowly, gradually, everything begins to sink steadily into the cool shade of the afternoon. As heavy slumber returns to our faun, the whole scene evanesces, evaporates, and then gently ebbs away...

When you finish listening to this piece, your recollection will likely be one of some intensity but complete vagueness. Just like a dream, you are left with an impression of the mood, in only a broadly ambiguous sense. This is precisely Debussy’s intention. 

What a magician to evoke all that in pure sound! This can only lead us to conclude that of course there was a deep-rooted structure underpinning this seemingly improvisatory work. Debussy simply embeds it beneath that surface of sensuality. So we come to understand that Debussy's great innovation is not to discard all that came before, but rather that he forever shifts the emphasis, making the structure and form covert instead of (Germanically) overt. In so doing, he opens up bold new paths for generations of composers to come.    

Watch a performance here, conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

You can also watch a wonderful analysis that Bernstein gives in a lecture at Harvard from the 1970s:

Kirsten Hicks